Friday, June 1

Peter Holsapple - The Interview (Part 2)

The dB’s Repercussion Blog
Interview with Peter Holsapple
Would you buy two copies of the same album
from these guys? They (and we) sure hope so.
Daniel Coston photo

No one can accuse Peter Holsapple of being a slacker — especially not after hearing about his "day in the life." 

Peter sings in Hoboken
On the night I called him for our planned interview, Peter had just returned from a trip. He’d been performing with the reunited dB’s in Hoboken, N.J., where they were headlining the annual Arts & Music Festival. Peter’s return flight was delayed, so he hadn’t arrived back home in Durham, N.C., until 3:00 a.m. Presumably, he caught a few z’s, but then was off later that morning to a new full-time job. At lunchtime the same day, he went to the funeral of a local musician friend. At the family’s request, Peter played and sang “All You Need Is Love.” Later in the day, he got home in time to put his young son to bed. Just minutes afterward, he got on the phone to talk to yours truly for an hour.

I'd call that a long day!

      Have your copy yet? 'Course you do...     
My wide-ranging conversation with Peter drifted from The dB’s past and present, to the group’s amazing new album Falling Off the Sky, to the wonder of life and music. During the hour-long chat, he struck me as the kind, affable man he’s widely reported to be. It's obvious that he’s a huge fan of music, still in love with the whole weird pop music thing — despite the head-scratching setbacks he and The dB’s have faced over the years. And he’s rightfully quite proud of the new album.

Although I didn’t ask him to address it, Peter’s thoughts frequently turned to the history of The dB’s. Perhaps a backward glance or two is inevitable at this point, given the band’s history. After dB’s founder Chris Stamey left the group in 1982 to pursue his own musical projects, Peter and Will Rigby (and Gene Holder, for much of the time) carried the banner admirably for The dB’s. By 1988, however, the musical life of the band appeared to be over. But in 2005, the release of the free single “World to Cry” and a handful of reunion concerts announced to the world that the group’s original lineup had once again joined forces.
 Reunion music to our ears

Peter says that “to get back together again, we had to do some reflecting — because there was a reason why there was no dB’s.” He describes 1982 as a major turning point for the band: “When Chris left, it wasn’t for any animosity. It was more because he really wanted to experiment with something else. And we always stayed friends. Then when Gene left to go to The Wygals, it was not animosity. He felt like we had done what we were going to do, and he wanted to do something else also.”

Along with the bumps in the road, however, Peter also has been remembering the halcyon days of growing up together in the North Carolina “tobacco town” referenced in Repercussion’s “Ups and Downs.” Asked to describe what makes The dB’s distinctive, Peter talks about “that element that we have, and I don’t even know what it is. I think the element comes from the four of us — four guys who grew up together in Winston-Salem in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We listened to the same stuff; we speak the same language; we talk Winston-Salem. I can just name a landmark there, and everybody will chime in. Or we’ll talk about an old music store or something that happened in high school, and we all remember it. We all have that shared hallucinogenic background. What I mean by that is, sometimes I think we hallucinated all of that growing up, ‘cuz it was all so great.”

Looks like fun: early performance, Little Diesel.
The more Peter talks about the musical environment in those days, the more I understand why he’s still in awe of it. “There was a healthy band scene,” he says. “There must have been 17 or 18 bands going at any given time. This was all with a couple of hundred guys in high school and junior high school! And it wasn’t like everybody was just playing Steppenwolf or Grand Funk covers. I mean, people were covering Spooky Tooth. The band that Chris, Mitch [Easter] and I had did half of Shazaam by The Move. In Rittenhouse Square, the first four songs we worked up were Wishbone Ash songs from their first two records. It was brilliant music, and we loved it.

“I think in our old bands, whether we were conscious of it or not, there was an element of getting our audience to keep an open mind about music and broadening their horizons. I mean, without being ‘high and mighty educators’ — we weren’t lauding it over people with our great and wonderful taste. But we did feel like, ‘OK, I’m glad you like the new James Taylor record, but you might really, really like this record by Mott the Hoople’, you know? We read all the magazines, we read all the rock books — it was great stuff. We happened upon a fortunate time. It was a great time to have a band and a great time to discover all your friends were into it, too.”

Peter and the mighty Ace Tone, c. 1980
Stephanie Chernikowski photo
When I ask Peter to distinguish Falling Off the Sky from The dB’s previous albums, he emphasizes the members’ desire to represents themselves as they are today and avoid becoming a retro-nostalgia act. “Without making it sound like it’s being recorded in 1982, which it isn’t; and because there’ve been events in all four of our lives — marriages, divorces, children, other bands, moving, hurricanes — all this stuff figures in. Hopefully, the songs and the record itself do reflect some of that personal growth and change. If we made it sound like 1982, we’d be treading water. We could’ve done that in 1983, but what would be the point of doing that in 2012? So it was important to make it sound contemporary as well.”

Case in point: can 50-something musicians still sing their older songs of youthful preoccupation — and not sound lecherous or ludicrous? Peter thinks not. “When someone calls out, ‘play Bad Reputation’, I’m like, ‘Ya know, the whole “new girl in school, she looks cool” — at the age of 56, I really [would] sound like a dirty old man.’ So I’m less and less inclined to want to sing something like that. ‘Black and White’ still holds true; the whole miserable girlfriend stuff is as universal as it ever has been. It rears its head in adult ways, too.”

DON'T compare them to them...
Over the years, fans and favorably-inclined critics have compared The dB’s to The Beatles. The comparison has never been in the “slavish imitators of the Fab Four” category. The commonality lies more in both groups’ creative use of the classic pop elements: melody, harmony and compelling songwriting. With this in mind, it’s funny to hear how careful Peter is to avoid promoting such thinking in regard to The dB’s latest music. “We’ve always felt that our records need to be made so they can bear repeated listening, the way — and this is not to compare ourselves to The Beatles; please don’t think I’m doing that at all, because I’m not!” (duly noted!) — “but I was just listening to Magical Mystery Tour today...” At this point, Peter’s wife interrupts the conversation to apply the famous John Lennon “bigger than Jesus” quote to The dB’s — prompting explosive laughter all around before Peter continues: “It’s the way you should make a record, it’s the way you should write a book, you know? I like to think that we had a real attention to making it a worthwhile listen as many times as you choose to do that.”

Repercussion starts with this one
In the context of The dB’s recorded canon, Peter talks about Falling Off the Sky in the same breath as the much-loved Repercussion, the band’s second album. “We wanted to make sure that this was one of those multifarious dB’s records of yore. Look at Repercussion — that’s a great example: it starts with ‘Living a Lie.’ But it does go all over the map of the dB’s world. And I think that’s good.” For Peter, an element of musical challenge is another good thing. “I don’t want to write the same song over and over again; I don’t think anybody wants to hear that over and over again. I think they long for variance; I think our listeners in particular really long for challenge — that’s why they like us.”

The beautiful and musically challenging Falling Off the Sky is chock full of great playing, gorgeous melodies, and thought-provoking lyrics, all of which made me want to revisit the album many times over. I tell Peter my favorite in the collection is “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore.” It’s a compelling, lump-in-the-throat song — a musical short story about a woman scarred by the trauma of surviving a hurricane. It’s one of those unforgettable pop songs that builds in musical and emotional intensity until the final crescendo. Best of all, it demonstrates a deep appreciation for the silence surrounding the rest of the music. I place it in the upper echelon of Peter’s compositions, with “Lonely Is As Lonely Does,” “Never Before and Never Again,” and “She Was the One.”

After I finish gushing, Peter explains that “She Won’t Drive” was co-written with Kristian Bush of Sugarland and formerly of Billy Pilgrim. He chuckles at the thought of people seeing “K Bush” in the album credits and jumping to the conclusion that Peter had co-written a song with a certain legendary British New Wave chanteuse! The next thing he says goes a long way to explaining the song’s impact on the listener: it’s based almost entirely on a true story.

“It’s about my wife evacuating New Orleans during Katrina. I was on the road with Hootie [and the Blowfish]; my wife had taken my daughter and my baby son and my daughter’s best friend on a train to Birmingham to buy a vehicle up there. She knew the hurricane was coming, and she did all the things you’re supposed to do. We didn’t think too much about it — we certainly didn’t realize it was going to be a 100-year storm. But when she got to Birmingham to get the car, it was very evident there was no turning back, so she drove literally across the storm path to get to her grandmother’s in Little Rock.”

      The diaspora created by Katrina         
Peter goes on to explain the reunion theme in the lyrics. He says his wife “took a day to re-group and then started driving back and she dropped my daughter’s best friend off with her mom in Memphis. And then [my wife took] Miranda, my daughter with Susan Cowsill, to where Susan and her husband were living at the time. Then she made a beeline to where Hootie was playing next, which was Baltimore. She got there 15 minutes before we went on. It had been this incredible, tortuous time, unable to get in touch with anybody. Meanwhile, I’m in this sort of suspended state of touring because I need the money, and I can’t really stop. Where am I gonna go, what am I gonna do? When I saw her, it was the first time in weeks, she and my son pulled up and I was overjoyed just to get to see her. We didn’t really talk very much because we didn’t really know what to say; it was all just so overwhelming.”

After expressing my alarm that LP space limitations mean “She Won’t Drive” will not appear on the vinyl edition of the album, Peter offers the last word about the song: “On this record, it sort of serves in the ‘Moving In Your Sleep’ position [the last song on Stands for deciBels ]. And I hope with today’s short-attention-span listeners, they can get to that point in the record and hear it. Because I do think it’s very worthwhile. Chris worked long and hard on it — we both worked long and hard getting the string arrangement just right.”

The evidence of a successful musical collaboration appears throughout the new album. But that doesn’t mean the writing, arranging, recording, mixing and sequencing took place without any struggle. “We’ve always tried to persuade ourselves into thinking this is a democracy; everybody can have veto power. That’s a good, sensible way to do it,” says Peter, “because you don’t want to put a song on a record that everyone [else] hates. If one person really, really despises it, then it’s going to be hard to make it onto the record.” The down side of this egalitarian approach, however, is that some worthy material can get left out of the spotlight. “There’s one song on the record that probably will not get played at dB’s shows. It’s a beautiful song and it deserves to be heard. It will probably get played somewhere in somebody’s [solo] set, but probably not The dB’s.”

 Peter hard at work on FOTS in 2009.  Daniel Coston photo  
See more of Daniel's awesome work HERE
Even when the band reached consensus on the 12 songs chosen for the new CD, more than a dozen others were held back. “There’s a really beautiful song — if I can say that about my own writing — called ‘So Sad About Sam’. It’s about a friend of ours that killed himself. We grew up adoring him. He was like Gene’s best friend. He was, without a doubt, my favorite guitar player in Winston-Salem. He drew so much from Mike Bloomfield, who was my favorite blues guitar player growing up. That’s a song that’s missing a lead guitar right now; we’re trying to figure out what to do with that.” Wait, there’s more: “There’s a song called ‘Lakefront’ that I wrote, that I think Will felt was too personal for a dB’s record. That’s a very New Orleans-centric song of mine; I did that song for years in solo acoustic sets. We cut it, and it’s nice; but somehow, it was too personal. ‘Orange Squeezer’, which is a great song — we’ll probably do that live at some point.”

Will's first dB's album track
One more song that was recorded and released, but will not appear on the album, has an unusual back story. “Picture Sleeve” is the vinyl-only 7-inch single released last April. The B side, Will’s composition “Write Back”, appears on the new album. But the A side will only be available as a bonus digital download for those who purchase the LP. In our conversation, Peter explained that “Picture Sleeve” is an ancient dB’s song that turned into a latter-day Holsapple-Stamey collaboration. “It’s one of the earliest things that The dB’s ever did. But the funny thing is, I’d written the song, [and] we used to play it in, like, ‘81 or ‘82. So, when it came time to get the album underway, Chris said, ‘Do we have anything old that we haven’t done? What about that song “Picture Sleeve” of yours?’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s great — except I can’t remember how that goes!’ There’s no tape of it anywhere, there’s no cassette. I remembered the tag line of it more than anything else, and Chris took that and ran with it. It ended up being another co-write, but it was sort of by accident.”

     Peter sings George Harrison     
photo by fred babyflo via Flickr
Thinking back to the earlier days of The dB’s, Peter still scratches his head over the band’s relative lack of commercial success. “In 1979 and 1980, when we were struggling to get a record deal, my feeling was always like, ‘are we really that different, are we really that weird? Are we so much more different than The Knack or The Pretenders?’ It never struck me that our stuff was so far in deep-roving left field that it would be unsalable or uninteresting to someone in a record company. But I guess it was.”

Now, with a new album about to be released, Peter sounds like a man trying to learn from past experiences: “Maybe if ‘Neverland’ had been a huge hit, things would be different. But it wasn’t, and that’s OK. Not everybody gets the brass ring that gets on the merry-go-round. You know, it’s disappointing. It’ll take you up and it’ll take you down. You can allow it to make you as miserable as you want. I’ve let it make me much more miserable than it does now. Now, I just try to be as circumspect about it as I possibly can. I don’t want it to take me out of the ballgame; I like this too much.”
 Coulda, woulda, shoulda...

This time, staying in the game will not mean a lengthy tour to promote Falling Off the Sky. No longer a book store employee, Peter’s new job is in the arts, and he sounds very content with his work environment. In fact, his boss knows about Peter’s musical endeavors and has made allowances so he can juggle both interests. The bottom line, however, is that although The dB’s are “a baby band again in many ways,” a full-scale tour is not in the offing. “That’s a big difference between The dB’s then and now: we have to really concentrate on what we have made our lives into. I’m glad we’ve made this beautiful record; I’m really proud of it and I do think it fits into the canon very nicely. The problem I have is that I can’t go out there on the road for six weeks in a van. I can’t sleep on people’s floors anymore; my back won’t tolerate it! Not to sound like a crotchety old man, but I have to try to keep myself healthy, I have to try to keep myself mentally healthy. We all do. And we have to do what’s right for our families.
Shared hallucinogenic memories = big laughs.
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can within reason to make this record happen. At this point, records don’t necessarily happen because you just tour yourself to death, either. I think there are some bands that do that. I’m glad for them. But they are considerably younger than we are. We’re not the freakin’ Lawrence Welk Orchestra, by any stretch of the imagination! But we’re all in our mid- to late-50s, and it changes the cosmetic of what you do at that age.”

So what’s a self-respecting dB’s fan to do? I humbly suggest (along with Mr. Holsapple himself) that you buy at least two copies of Falling Off the Sky. You can think of it as generosity toward the band, and perhaps also the friend to whom you give your extra copy. Or, more selfishly, you can think of it as insurance that we get to hear some more dB’s music in the not-too-awfully-distant future.  
Please guys, don’t wait another 30 years — some of us won’t be around that long!!

Peter H drawing by
Peter Blegvad for Radio Free Song Club
Perhaps I sound a tad more cynical than I should. After all, we’re talking about The dB’s and Peter Holsapple — the man whose optimism and respect for the fans still burns brightly. “We have great, intelligent fans that are willing listeners,” he says. “They’re not fickle people. Good Lord, they've stuck it out this long!”

For all of us who have stuck it out, the rewards just now are sweet indeed. 

THANK YOUChris, Will, Gene — and the decidedly non-slackerish  
Peter Holsapple.


2 comments:

  1. I heard "She Won't Drive in the Rain Anymore" on the album stream on the KDHX site and can safely say it is the most emotionally powerful song I have heard in a long, long time.

    There is no doubt I'm getting this disk when it finally releases.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All I can say to that is, "Amen."

      I don't think you'll regret it. The more you listen to it, the better it sounds...

      Delete